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Hit and myth

No time is harder to see than the present. The past we invent freely, fossicking for the bits that make the right stories. But the present is brimming with what Roland Barthes called the ‘what-goes-without-saying’—the stuff that’s so persuasive, so important to our sense of ourselves, that we dare not speak its name.

I mention this on account of Bridget Jones, who gives me the irrits.

But her ancestor, Elizabeth Bennet, is another matter. I feel bad about it—Bridget is, after all, my contemporary—but I much prefer the begowned and beslippered Elizabeth to her twittery descendant. I understand Elizabeth; Bridget doesn’t make sense.

It is, as Elizabeth would say, very vexing. Helen Fielding (who wrote the books and also has writing credits for both films) has acknowledged her debt to Jane Austen, so you’d expect to find both heroines likeable. In many ways they’re cast from the same mould: Bridget and Elizabeth are single British women of marriageable age; they are middle-class, attractive, reasonably eligible. As Austen shone a light into the minds and manners of 19th-century England, Fielding exposes, and caricatures, the lives of modern single women. But where Austen’s light illuminates, Fielding’s grates.

Bridget is a baffling display of barely amusing foolishness. She ditzes her way between men, whining about being a ‘singleton’, fretting about being ‘fat’ (at 60kg, I hardly think so), getting her geography wrong and spilling things. Elizabeth is poise and reason itself. She rarely complains, and keeps romantic conjecture to herself. Her tongue is as razor sharp as her determination not to be taken in by fools and worthless lovers.

All of which raises the question: surely two centuries after the pioneering feminists, we can do better than Bridget?

Perhaps you are now thinking: oh, please; they’re just stories. And there are those (many, going on the fact that Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Edge of Reason both made it into the top ten at the Australian box office) who find Bridget funny and clever. Bridget’s spin doctors declare her a ‘heroine to singletons everywhere’; the Times Literary Supplement fell only a little short of declaring her the embodiment of her generation. She certainly does her best to send up the hopeless expectation that she will, by her early 30s, be happily married, wealthy, wildly successful on the career front, and ready to get ‘sprogged up’ with her first child. In her modern way—such as when she tells a roomful of ‘smug marrieds’ that 30-year-old women remain single because they’re covered in scales—she does share Elizabeth’s subversive turn.

But if Bridget’s modern-girl self-deprecation doesn’t exhaust all of one’s patience, then the tone of its delivery does. The films are the worst offenders here, and especially the last.

In The Edge of Reason we’re not laughing with Bridget, but—loudly, with a hint of disgust—at her. No acting skill on Renée Zellweger’s part could compensate for all the close-ups of Bridget’s wobbly belly and double chin. If, at the end of the first film, we were prepared to believe that the stuffy (but loveable, and powerful) Mark Darcy could like Bridget ‘just as she is’, by the end of the second film we’re convinced that if he does love her, it’s in spite of who she is.

This troubles me, because I don’t subscribe to the belief that a story is just a story—stories, especially ones with the global reach of the Bridget Jones franchise, are powerful messages about who we are and ought to be. Advertisers know this, or they wouldn’t spend millions weaving their products into blockbusters. Of course, not everyone will identify with every story (Finding Nemo made nearly as much money as both Bridget films put together), but Bridget certainly resonates, whether you like her or not.

Which brings us back to Miss Bennet. Elizabeth is not without fault—she admits to flights of vanity and prejudice. And hers is not a modern woman’s tale—spirited as she is, her story boils down to her need for a husband. Yet she seems in other ways the epitome of progress: in an era when trifling accomplishments, dependency and limited rights were the female lot, Elizabeth demands to be heard as a ‘rational creature’. She is not the simpering specimen her mother has become, whiling away the hours with gossip and affected illness; nor is she the sneering, ambitious sort who flatters men in the hope of gaining advantage. Her body might feel the limitations of the times, but her mind is free.

Yet I wonder whether I would like her so much if she were my contemporary. Her misjudgment of the shameless Mr Wickham could be an unforgivable faux pas, and the ‘conceited sort of independence’ her haughty acquaintances abhor might seem a pointless display, given we know she is going to marry Mr Darcy. The key, I think, is having access to just enough context to put Elizabeth into perspective. It is easy to skim the past, read a little of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and see Elizabeth’s rational manner as rebellion against the frippery of female life. The lot of the Misses Bennet is clear—they are dependent on men to survive. Without marriage, their situation would be desperate, so Elizabeth’s level of resistance is just right, and the romantic myth Austen carves out of it lingers like something delicious on the tongue.

Back in Austen’s time, Wollstonecraft made a bold prediction: ‘Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man.’ In other words, give women the right to vote, earn and think, and they’ll be less foolish, more like blokes. In this light, the way that Fielding has updated Austen is revealing. While it’s beyond our scope to speak of all women, the choice of Bridget as a heroine seems to prove Wollstonecraft more than a little wrong. Bridget is decidedly not like the men in her life, and she self-consciously yearns for Austen’s romantic blueprint. She seems, while enjoying her independence and having a reasonably sensible head on her shoulders (a fact overlooked in the films), to need to defer to her hero (a wish fulfilled when her Darcy rescues her, twice). And on top of that, if the films are to be believed, she has little or no dignity. She’s stupid, fat, an object of ridicule.

That Wollstonecraft’s hopes for the future should be thus dashed is counter-intuitive, to say the least. Unless one flirts with the unthinkable (that women became the second sex because they are the second sex), it’s hard to see how such widespread social change—women now are independent, strong, educated—can have produced such a confused character. But getting back to Barthes, the hardest things to say are those right in front of one’s face. Putting a finger on Bridget’s condition is difficult because so many of us are still living it.

There is another factor, I think, that makes Bridget what she is—and I am going to borrow boldly from Michel Foucault to try to show it. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the entry of the soul into the penal process. Where once people were physically punished for a crime, modern justice takes aim at the soul—placing social control inside the person.

Perhaps Austen’s romantic myth has taken a similar route. Elizabeth and Darcy’s story is a powerful antidote to the reality of women in Austen’s era. It fosters a belief not only that one’s soul can be free from social limitation, but that this freedom can bring rewards within the system—namely, marriage to a wealthy man. It plants the idea of change without seriously undermining the status quo. By the time we get to Bridget, circumstances have changed so much that the myth seems useless. But it hasn’t given up, just gone underground—into the hearts and minds of women. Bridget has therefore taken responsibility for the spirit of a system that was used to repress her ancestors—and this, in turn, allows us to laugh at her because she’s still, after all, just a silly woman.

This theory puts Bridget into some perspective—annoying though she may be, she is, after all, as much a product of her time and place as Elizabeth is of hers. The myth remains, but has a new anchor. If, as Harold Bloom writes in The Western Canon, Austen ‘understood that the function of convention was to liberate the will’, then Fielding shows us that the function of Bridget’s will is to cocoon her romantic inheritance.

Bridget makes us cringe because she resonates with what we know: that modern single women must battle to find a decent man, while apologising (in Bridget speak: ‘Oops, sorry! Durr, silly Bridget!’) for their fascination with such frivolous matters. It’s hard to see this because it’s in our faces all the time—in the popular press, on TV, at your local pub around 3am. There is, however, always hope—there will be more reworkers of the myth, storytellers who will help us glimpse the way things are, and could be. As the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton said in 1888, ‘The true woman is as yet a dream of the future.’ She’s also a dream of the here and now.       

Leah De Forest is a Canberra writer. Images used by permission.




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